Les Diaboliques Review
The FilmI love a good old love triangle. This probably explains my passion for French suspense cinema with its particular fascination with twisted relationships, murderous intent and social sexual analogies. I particularly love how the romantic can become the political and how the shadows of jealousy, avarice and the appetite for power can easily lead to annihilation of the once beloved. No genre lends itself to these ideas like the thriller, and, personally, I believe that no nation makes better thrillers than the French.
After the success of Wages of Fear, Henri Georges Clouzot moved from the action thriller to the seedy goings on of Les Diaboliques. Casting his wife, Vera, as the innocent Latin victim of a brutal boorish husband, Paul Meurisse, the seemingly innocent location of a private boarding school for boys is polluted with adultery, alcoholism, exploitation, rape, domestic violence and murder. Every puddle there is filled with murk, penny pinching causes the young pupils to be fed rank food, and the adults in charge are the worst of our kind whilst the children they lead are taught nothing but an obedience enforced by punishment.Undercut by the darkest of humour and the incessant intimations of even worse going on than we actually see, Les Diaboliques is a miserable hell for our heroine Christina whose existence as the sole decent character within the film leaves her alone and at risk. She is figuratively and actively shadowed by her rival in love Nicole, played by Simone Signoret, and the ailing virtuous Latina and the worldly European are constantly counterpointed as light and dark, bad and good in a battle of status which adds the visual to the thematic within this thriller. Christina is constantly framed behind bars or threatened within the darkness of the film's compositions, and this visual menace reaches an amazing climax in the tense, almost supernatural final 10 minutes.
The opening of the film introduces the dreadful headmaster, his mistress and his put upon wife. We believe that the women have resolved to revolt and for all of Michel's dreadful violence, mental and physical, we could almost feel collusive when the key act of comeuppance comes his way. Magnificently, Clouzot extends the suspense beyond this act, allowing a little well earned respite to Christina before building the concluding unsettling momentum through well placed revelations and pointed suggestions. The master of this genre, described the purpose of it as pulling a string as tight as possible and few thrills reach the level of extreme tension that Les Diaboliques attains.My modern critical eyes can now see Christina as a very passive heroine, whose innocence is rather over stressed, but they also witness a beautifully composed film that conjurs images to match the themes of the immensely well written story. The subversive intent, the suggestions of moral parallels to the greater world recall the director's fearlessness in works like Le Corbeau, and a popular broad thriller with unfathomable twists and turns is delivered to a thankful viewer. With unmatchable tension, oodles of dark wit and superb intimations of devilry, Clouzot's most entertaining film is a classic of its genre.
Tech SpecsA single layer, region free blu-ray was offered for review with a transfer file-size of 18.6GB. This is a film that has never looked that great on home entertainment formats and it is important to state that the quality of the visual image here is mixed at best. Weaker base materials result in very soft parts of the transfer and a general lack of detail throughout, grain is very heavy in places and the whole of the film exhibits a very mottled appearance in lighter shades. This means that the darker, or interior scenes, look best. I can't really complain about the contrast given these limitations and edge enhancement is present but not excessive. The frame rate of the transfer is 23.98 per second.The lossless French mono track suffers as well from poor base materials with much background noise, hiss and pops, and occasional distortion. The optional English subtitles are very good translations of the sense of the dialogue if not literal representations of the actual words.
Special featuresThe marvellous Ginette Vincendeau offers an introduction to the film in English which she admits is spoiler laden. She talks about the controversy around Le Corbeau and Clouzot's suspension from film-making in liberated France. She discusses the comparison between Clouzot and Hitchcock - both are "precise" and interested in codified composition - and moves on to differences with the source novel. The introduction is clearly intended for this edition as it refers to the commentary track available here as well.
That commentary track is from author Susan Hayward. This starts very fluently with Hayward seemingly reading from prepared text but soon is punctuated by long silences. Hayward approaches the commentary as a reading of the film as she persistently draws attention to the mise en scene and considers the film from a very auteuristic bent. This can seem a little dry but is a very useful way for an unfamiliar viewer to absorb less superficial qualities along with some important background detail.
A trailer is offered as well, and all of the filmed extras on the DVD are in HD. The same extras appear on the DVD in this edition. A booklet featuring an essay by Brad Stevens and an interview between Paul Schrader and the director is included – these were not made available for review.
SummaryUnless better materials are found or restored, then perhaps this may be as good as Les Diaboliques will look. Decent extras and fine packaging, make this a strong release if not a perfect one.
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